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Who are the real influencers in your organisation? No, not these ones

The influencers inside your organisation are the leaders, the decision makers. Since they’re the ones who steer the business, they have to be, right? Wrong.

You don’t have to take my word for it, because the findings of McKinsey speak volumes about the misunderstanding of where influence lies in a business. After studying organisations in various industries, they found that ‘influencer patterns almost never follow the organisational chart’ and that ‘when company leaders believe they know who the influencers will be, they are almost always wrong.

Another study by HBR found similar results: ‘[managers’] assumptions about employees outside their immediate circle are usually off the mark… so they’re left to draw conclusions based on superficial observations, without the tools to test their perceptions.

To truly get under the skin of their business, leaders need to understand and acknowledge that alongside the formal organisational chart, there exists a complex web of social ties: the informal organisation.

In a knowledge economy where value creation is driven by ideas and the intangibles, it’s this informal organisation that gets most of the day-to-day tasks done, according to McKinsey.

The real influencers are harder to spot

The informal organisation is the sum of all existing networks of relationships that employees form across divisions and functions. These networks may involve two individuals, or more. They may have a title, or they may not. They may exist only online, only offline, or both. There are no rules.

If the formal organization is the skeleton of a company, the informal is the central nervous system driving the collective thought processes, actions, and reactions of its business units.’ D.Krackhardt & J.Hanson

Informal networks come in all shapes and forms but they all have the same backbone, the unique strength that allows great teams to thrive: trust.

Contrary to the formal organisational structure, informal networks are optional. Employees choose to join a community, which is why employees may form deeper relationships through informal networks than their formal counterparts.

Influencers can catalyse or sabotage organisations

An informal network will often have one or several pivotal members that connect the other members together. They’re the hub of the network. They’re the influencers.

You see this at play on Fridays at work. When the influencers ask people to go out for after work drinks for example, the whole office is out drinking. When they don’t, people go home. This is a rather trivial example perhaps, but other scenarios may have more serious consequences.

Influencers have the power to undermine the formal organisation in a number of ways. They can become gatekeepers or increase confusion or complexity. Moreover, if they leave the organisation, there’s a risk that other members of that network will follow in their footsteps. This snowball effect can quickly become a very costly predicament.

READ MORE: The one quality employees want most from their CEO

Similarly, they may be at odds with decisions from leadership. In this scenario, they may use the influence they have over their peers to sabotage organisational decisions, for example.

However, turn these influencers into advocates and their outsized influence will positively impact morale, how hard employees work, and what they think about the future. They can be active architects, build positive inertia and convince the more sceptical employees that organisational decisions are the right ones — something you cannot do over an email or a Powerpoint presentation.

And this is how you find them

Good news: by using snowball sampling, finding informal influencers is relatively easy.

If you’re not familiar with this technique, snowball sampling asks study subjects to recruit future participants from among their acquaintances. Scientists use it a lot for studies that involve people unlikely to get involved in formal research (drug users, sex workers etc.). You can also see snowball sampling in your Facebook feed sometimes, with the ‘Tag a friend who…’ type of post.

To find your hidden influencers, send out an anonymous survey asking a battery of questions on who people turn to in certain scenarios. For example, ‘Whose advice to you trust and respect?’, ‘Who do you think has the best interpersonal skills?’, or even ‘Who’s the funniest person in the office?’. Ask respondents to nominate a couple or more colleagues, and quickly you’ll be able to map out who is a true influencer, and who is not.

It’s leaders who understand the informational organisation and work together with their informal influencers that are on the right track to build a better future for their organisation. As McKinsey puts it, ‘Changes made with the support of these influential employees are vastly more likely to succeed in the long run than changes delivered from on high.’

So go and find your hidden superstars. The results will probably surprise you.